A Brief History of Leather

Note: The following entry is an account based on personal perspective, insight and inept historical knowledge; if the material is wrong by definition – not perspective – please do not stab/run me over with your Harley. Thank you.

Fetish is not limited by any set definition, rather it is defined by a mutual interest towards sexuality. Human beings, while social creatures, often seek collective interest with their peers in regard to just about everything. In the modern 21st century, Gods only know why, the subject of sexuality remains a controversial issue; institutions both religious or otherwise, continue to argue and debate the definition of ‘normal’ sex. To this I say, why the fuck does that even matter?

The last thing a person needs is to feel left out or out of place, and for organizations that continue to create an atmosphere of fear and intolerance, there must also be a need to create communities that dismantle such negative connotations. As mentioned, human beings – whether or not they know it – seek out the company of likeminded fellows, for the sake of sanity and good health. Left in isolation, like a caged animal, one can quickly lose their mind (or convert to Mormonism).

Within the world of BDSM, the leather movement is both a growing yet dying lifestyle, wherein splinter movements have been born out of the process of change and separatism between new generations. The most tragic part of change is the cost of it to the people from before, the founders and pioneers, including those that have suffered yet endured to create what is available today. What is most important is neither the preservation nor restoration of old traditions, but the capacity to recognize perhaps even utilize their influence in the future.

While numerous books and oral historians are available – including both a class presenter amongst the many others present at KinkFest – much of the history surrounding the leather culture is secondhand at best. It is almost universally agreed that there is no actual definitive history to it, merely a gathered demograph of its origins across different North American cities, the roles of varied groups all abroad. This entry is an attempt to document perhaps share the information that I have gathered so far.

As a side note – cue the dramatic crescendo – I should point out that my not being part of the leather culture may automatically discredit me even before I begin. But why would you do that, Yellow? Well, truth be told I feel it is vital to at least provide an angle as to where it is all this is coming from.

***

During the post-war years of the 1940’s, young servicemen returning from the European and Japanese theaters of war, returned home and were integrated back into the civilian life. Some of these young men, having been in an environment where they were constantly surrounded by other young men, often times in uniform and answering to rank and file, began to develop ‘questionable’ preference in sexuality. In fact, some of these men began to realize that they were simply gay.

Of course, in that particular era, the societal view on homosexuality at large was considered widely negative. In some places within the United States people could be institutionalized, jailed or even killed because of it. Likewise, gay servicemen, accustomed to the comradery and kinship brought about by war and military discipline found difficulty readjusting to everyday civilian life. The bond that exists between one fellow soldier to the next is sacred, considered beyond all value, and a mystery to those unfamiliar to it.

For the sake of personal sanity and welfare, these gay servicemen would migrate to larger cities; after all in smaller towns, one could face immense risk and scrutiny if outed to a close knit community. These men were not accustomed to the common image of the effeminate homosexual. Instead there remained a preference for masculinity, for dominance and a return to the comradery of before.

Due to the large number of leftover war vehicles, namely Harley Davidson bikes, most were redistributed to former G.I.’s instead. Groups of these young men, at times alienated by the environment of civilian life, sought the company of one another and among them the closeted homosexuals at the time. The culture behind a motorcycle club carries with it military roots and origins such as rank and insignias, reminiscent of a seemingly lost period of time. Such a promising return to that period would prove more than enough to most.

Express precaution had to be placed, of course, which led towards the systematic use of code words such in conversation. For example, “Hey, I play the Saxophone (Sadism).” or “Really? I play the Mandolin (Masochism)”. After government crackdown on gay culture began, further systems were devised as a means of discretion, leading to the famous hanky code of norm. While the latter system is more specific, in truth it is an imperfect one – between different cities, variations could occur.

Within these groups of leathermen, there had to be an emphasis on protocol, and old traditions that carry on into the current generation of leather continues to exist.  While again varied between communities abroad (that being no “twue” way), much of protocol stems out of pure common sense. Not surprisingly the overlap into ‘regular fetish protocols is not that far apart. Don’t interrupt when a senior member is speaking. Maintain exquisite care to your leather materials. Observe, ask, and don’t be afraid to learn. Don’t be a dick.

As the communities began to grow, mainly as an underground community, elsewhere the rest of the United States continued to experience immense building pressure against the LGBT movement. It was not unheard of for prosecutions to occur and undercover police officers would often attempt to infiltrate the scenes at large. At its peak, the witch hunts in the Cold War era resulted in extreme measures having to be placed – resulting in members having to earn the right to be taught, which led to the birth of traditional mentorship.

To prove that one had an interest in the culture, often times they were required to perform a various degree of services such as fetching water, at times even sexual, but to a certain degree leading to the birth of another subculture to leather : Bootblacking. In time the mentor would slowly enable the apprentice to be taught and within the leather movement the right of a title such as “Master” would be an achievement well deserved. Often times it is said that the proudest day for a graduate came from a gift of sorts such as a vest, at times a pin or a beret. These articles are to leathermen what sacred religious items are to the pious – meaning that they are never left uncared for.

Widely considered to be a monumental moment in the LGBT movement, the infamous Stonewall Riots found the presence of leathermen participating at the time. There, amidst the chaos and looting, they served the role of protectors to the drag queens. In the eyes of many this bond was established in the form of their being mutual societal outcasts. During the Pride Parade, often times leathermen can be found marching behind the presence of the Empresses, reflecting their role as protectors of the court. Their fellow kindred, the leather dykes, were said to sit on top of certain police cruisers deemed as LGBT-friendly to keep from further unnecessary destruction.

A variety of histories mix between the leather communities, gay or otherwise. What is known in regards to the leather dyke movement is that theirs is an equally rich background, one that perhaps in the future I will document further. It is known that both the gay leathermen and leather dykes found communion together during the AIDS pandemic, the account of many inflicted men being in the care of women. Likewise during the late 80’s there was an immense clash between the leather dykes and feminists of the era, mostly due to the image of patriarchy against feminism, to a point where violent altercations were not unheard of.

Tragically during the AIDS pandemic period, due to the panic that occurred, many Tops drifted away from the scene and for that reason it can be described as a major blow. With the departure of old members in the leather community, the leather culture saw the death of an entire generation, leaving nobody available to share the knowledge and teachings of old.

However, following the renewed interest to leather in the 90’s, followed by the atmosphere of tolerance and liberal acceptance to the lifestyle; members of old and new resurfaced, often times returning to their old haunts, and reuniting with friends and family alike. The comradery of leather folk is timeless, unchanging, like that of brothers and sisters at large – an atmosphere of celebration was in the air, followed then by unified grief for the lost and tribute to the ones before.

In the wake of the communities, some gay bars would organize publicity events that targeted  leather as a fashion, and from local contests there would form regional competitions – the Mr & Ms International Leather competitions had been born. Soon contests began to sprout everywhere from Master/slave to pony races, an entire movement had spawned once more.

But what of the Old Guard? It is my belief, no offense intended, to like towards one quote heard at the convention: “The Old Guard was probably formed when a group of old farts sat together in a leather bar, muttering amongst themselves about how long they’ve been around for, when some young pup walks by and exclaims, ‘They must be the Old Guard’ which to the old farts meant they just had a better chance to get laid.”

The notion of leather folk being pompous and zealous with protocol is a misconception. Some can be but like most people you come across – in this scene or otherwise, that is only relative. The people of leather have learned to draw strength from their numbers and learn from one another. However, one thing is almost always certain regarding the nature of them; that is, the years of comradery and community, faithful in their bond to one another, represents more than a culture or lifestyle. To many it is simply a life of its own.

Even to an outsider like myself, leather folk will always be themselves regardless of their clothing – casual or leather – and the truth is, they dress as comfortably as they wish. The image of a leather clad person being part of the leather community is as biased as seeing a collared person instantly as a slave – there is a difference between a fetish for leather to a leather community.

The most simple saying in the leather movement are three words: “Honor, Integrity and Respect”. It is a saying in leather yet the truth is that the experience is a personal journey. There will always be a difference in experience, inside and outside of the scene, but in the world of leather there is an emphasis for respect. It is earned and not given, cannot be demanded but only gifted.

***

In a sparsely filled classroom, the instructor for the Leather in the 21st Century class thanks the few people present for their attendance. At times his oral recitation of the culture is interrupted by the sound of screams next door and jokingly talks about them having more fun. I am surprised that I am the only non-leather identifying person present in the class. When I inform some of the attendants of my quest, flying the flag with me wherever I go, it prompts a moment of tears from one. They embrace each other, strangers to some, family to all; in their midst, I am humbled by their affection to one another and likewise, am embraced with them.

“Good luck,” an older woman says, squeezing my shoulder. “Spread that message of peace and love to our brothers and sisters, within and outside of leather, and take the fight where it counts.”

Another leather man chips in, outside the class, “What you’re doing is immense. I’m sure you know this but you have something that pushes you. I think its something distinct that frightens you actually.” He glances at a passing young woman in a collar, adding, “No, it ain’t the perversion. Its in your eyes. Its the same kind of determination that sent a friend of mine off to his grave. He pursued his passions even before his health took him.” He sniffs momentarily and I did the only sane thing I could. I offered him a hug. “You have that. Fly that flag over New York and know that we’ll have your back. Godspeed.”

Next Update: The Changing of Hands

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